Voyages

Turdus-migratorius-002

March 17

It is winter if you are a calendar watcher, spring still four days away. Tell that to the weather, all summery, shining down sun, sky June blue, winds soft. The front yard is snow-bare, with snow drops and crocuses peeking through the grass. Fat-leaved tulips and thin-stalk daffodils push up in the garden, getting ready for their turn in the sun. The robins arrived a week ago, in the midst of harsh winds and March-lion storm warnings. I identified them first by sound, listening to the musical theatre that is a sure sign of shifting season, like shifting ground, a seismic indicator, birds all a-twitter, crazy love. Chirping pulled me outside, literally pulled me outside, the sound so insistent that concentrating on my writing was impossible. 

I stood under the bare maple tree, peering up, then realized the sound came from my right, the tree on the lawn two houses down. I caught a flash of red, a bird with an un-robin tuft of feathers on its head, like a hat on a Buckingham Palace duchess. A cardinal, and further away, the mate, a dull copper colour. I should have known by the bird's call, no signature up-slide end syllable, chir-up, chir-up. But I had so hoped for a robin, and we hear what we want to hear. Two days later, I follow the trail of sound once again, and there it is, the first robin of the season, the harbinger of spring and all that holds and means, the sign of better things, the promise of better things. 

Today, St Patrick's Day, my late brother's birthday, is marked by this wonderfully warm and unseasonable weather, unreasonable weather. It is also marked by big-winged birds, huge wingspans and powerful, as if raptors. A crow flaps large across my front window, a stick in its beak, the dove's olive branch. A pair of Canada Geese beats in unison above the crow's path, crisscrossing skyways as if overpasses. Later, starlings work as a team, dive-bomb a bird of prey, give chase. Not far away, a few city blocks, a hawk soars strong and calm, silhouette swaying from its claws, a rodent in the moment of death, the slow dance of life and endings. 

The sky is busy, and so is the water. My husband and I take advantage of this end-of-winter summer-spring to launch our kayaks, a full month earlier than the previous year. There is an excitement about the inaugural voyage of the season. I feel the twittering of the birds in my body, feel approaching spring and crazy love, and all things water and river.

We pull lifejackets from winter storage, and check our paddles, and find bungee cords to tie down the boats. We promise to take it easy, contain our bodies, tell ourselves we need to slip into the season, our muscles emerging from winter storage too. In anticipation of our first paddle, I visit the hardware store, wander the cavernous aisles until I find duct tape, buy a roll big enough to last a season. Now, in my driveway, I duct-tape the kayak car, the vehicle we use for transporting our boats. It amuses me to do so, and embarrasses me, too. Who holds their car together with duct tape? I turn my back in such a way to block my neighbours' view, seal the large crack where I scraped the fender against a tree while exiting a tight squeeze, and another where my daughter backed up into the car, apply the grey tape against the grey exterior. The car is too old to warrant the cost of cosmetic repair, and invaluable to us in that way that money can't buy. It bears multiple scratches and dents from loading the boats up and down, and is perfect for kayaking, aging like its owners, at the point in life where one more wrinkle doesn't matter, and it's the voyage that counts.

The roadway to our launch spot is chained off, and we have to put in further downstream. The area is the winter habitat of bald eagles, four of them to be exact, and is protected until the birds leave for their summer breeding grounds in Alaska. The Canada Geese on the river don't care much about disturbing the eagles, noisy and plentiful and annoyed with us. The geese are scouting nesting places, staking out territory, fear these two overgrown kayak-birds will set up house in their chosen spots. We paddle under an old train bridge, and a couple of Canada Geese squawk at us from on high, perched under the bridge atop rusted iron girding and trestles, a nesting penthouse away from the rest of the geese-gang in the brush along the water's edges. 

Perhaps they think they are bald eagles. The male drops down at us, wings wide, neck and head hunched in killer attack mode. His mate honks nastily from her perch, goading her knight in shining feathers to action. We give the bird wide berth, pass under the bridge, two old geezers/geesers ourselves, long past the nesting stage - the birds just don't know it. More geese honk dire warnings as we paddle by, the honking breaking the air like the clashing of cymbals. If you want peace and quiet, avoid nature, stay home. 

An otter breaks the surface, swims straight across the river, true and strong and determined, direction undeterred by our presence, passing a few feet in front of the bow of our boats. It heads to the banks of a small island mid-river, scouting out its own nesting dwelling, in one-track-mind spring manner. Further ahead, I give chase/race to another otter. The otter is moving swiftly, and then I see it is but a branch caught in the current.

We paddle downstream and turn around before reaching the dam, paddle upstream against the current towards our starting point, past the towering condo at the water's edge, one of those fashionable upscale buildings named after deer, or the woods, or the river, those subdivisions that push wildlife from their natural habitats and then name their streets after them. A tripod stands on a balcony, waiting the right moment, belonging to a nature photographer or maybe a voyeur. 

I turn my bow towards a pair of geese floating near shore, a voyeur myself. I think they are a rare breed, the head of one of them white-hooded, the rest of the bird darkly feathered. But it is an anomaly, a genetic discrepancy, and the bird is a Canada Geese. I wonder if the bird knows it is different, or if its mate knows, if they are oblivious to the fact, or maybe attracted to each other because of it, two odd ducks who found each other. 

When I was a girl, and my brother was a teenager, and there were such things as autograph books, a prized collection of friends long before Facebook, he wrote in mine: "Love many, trust few, always paddle your own canoe." 

Those words come back to me today, paddling along the river, the first paddle of the season, his birthday. I wonder if I have that autograph book stashed somewhere, want to see the ink on the page, his handwriting. 

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© Marianne Paul 2011